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Digital Dieting

Photo: Andrew Michaels

Author: Tara Brabazon
University of Brighton

: information obesity, digital dieting, information literacy, information scaffold

If we live, read, write and teach in an age of information obesity, then an obvious solution is digital dieting.  This article provides methods for digital dieting through strategies for curricula innovation, assessment and media management. 

A new menace is threatening to overwhelm our cities and towns.  It is not the percentage of women wearing a dress larger than size fourteen.  It is not the beer gut protruding over the belt of contemporary masculinity.  It is not the loss of fitness in young people through playing on a Wii rather than with a football.  Instead, the problem – so clearly revealed by Kate Moss – is that our culture ridicules extra flesh but not excessive ignorance.  If “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," (Moss in Wardrop 2009) then why does ignorance taste better than thinking before she speaks?  To put it another way, why is eating more important than reading?

Answering this question requires thinking about the consequences of information obesity.  I am interested in two concurrent, yet oppositional movements: the proliferation of information for the digitally literate at the same time as information literacy is more difficult to attain because of a decline in funding for schools, universities, libraries and educational infrastructure.  To understand this starvation of information literacy in an environment of information glut, I summon and reconfigure an unusual model to understand and manage this paradox. 

Information Obesity
One of the causes for obesity is the proliferation of food around us.  A study of eating habits from Brian Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University revealed that his subjects made over two hundred choices about food each day (Wansink, 2009, p.1).   We could be thinking about climate change or the pile of dishes in the sink.  Instead, Wansink shows that our thoughts are filled with food.  Do we pop into Subway for a sandwich?  Do we march into the corner deli for a healthy three bean salad wrap or - what the hell - order a home delivery of an extra large pepperoni pizza with a stuffed crust and garlic bread?  Why not open a cheeky chardonnay to accompany the calorific blowout? 

The energy and time spent making these food choices is enormous (1).   Even when not eating, we are thinking about eating.  We eat because there is food around us.  This is “mindless eating” (Wansink, date unknown).   We eat more than we think.  We think about food more than we consciously know.  Wansink argues that most are on ‘see food’ diet.  When we see it, we eat it.  He suggests if foods are removed from the environment, then choices are reduced and there is a greater chance to lose weight (2).   One factor is common to all successful diet plans.  They restrict the number of choices that the person makes about food during the day. While nutritionists criticize the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet or the Cabbage Soup Diet, these eating plans are successful, at least in the short term.  Success is not only created by restricting the amount of calories, but also by reducing the number of choices made about food. 

Wansink’s ideas can be applied more widely.  We not only live in an environment of abundant food, but an excess of information.  Hundreds of choices are made each day about which book to select from the shelf, website to visit, magazine to buy in the supermarket aisle or podcast to download for a train trip.  The scale of these choices explains Google’s success.  Google is the Atkins Diet of search engines.  Through the application of the PageRank algorithm, websites are ranked, organized and delivered (Brin and Page 1998).  Choices – and thinking about those choices - decrease.  A word or phrase is typed into a friendly box.  Even if it is spelt incorrectly, the algorithms will return information to the user.  It is not quality data, but is the informational equivalent of a Big Mac, Fries and a Coke.

Here is an example of this process.  I want to find some source material about postcolonialism.  I type “postcolonialism” into Google (3).   The first return is Wikipedia, a generalized, collectively written and edited, unreferenced presentation on the topic (4).  This type of source is adequate if the searcher requires a quick definition for personal interest, but it is not the specialist knowledge required for formal education.  Intriguingly, a small amount of knowledge and information literacy can make a great difference.  This time, in entering the Google search box, I not only type “postcolonialism,” but also nominate three of the major theorists in the field:  “Bhabha,” “Balibar” and “Spivak” (5).  The list is completely different.  Suddenly the universities appear in the rankings, along with the specialist writers.  Wikipedia disappears.

This very simple experiment with keywords confirms that the consequences of information obesity are not derived from Google, but sourced from a searcher’s lack of expertise.  One structural way for educators to ensure that students are aware of the limitations in their knowledge and learn how to analyse and judge the type of materials they are receiving is to create assessment and curriculum that blocks easy data mining.   Removing the reliance on Wikipedia, widening search terms and increasing specialist knowledge in academic disciplines means that students do not rely on shortcuts (and scholarly satiation) from simple sources. 

Andrew Whitworth’s investigation of information obesity confirmed that all forms of obesity – with food or media – require more than a culture of blame on individuals to shift patterns of behaviour (Whitworth 2009).   It is necessary to organize information and production.  To enact change, there must be a movement beyond personal guilt and into collective and corporate responsibility.  If a fast food restaurant did not exist, then it could not be visited.  If Wikipedia did not exist, then it could not be used in schools and universities.  More practically, if high quality food was both accessible and reasonably priced – or online and offline books and articles were freely available for students to use – then the temptation to snack on the cheap, quick and easy would be less compelling. 

The strength and the weakness of Google is that everyone can find a little bit of information, using already existing knowledge.  It creates a culture of satisfaction.  We are hungry for an answer.  Google provides it, just like when we are hungry for food and a McDonalds’ drive through offers an easy option for calories.  We do not think about the other choices we could have made.  We are satisfied.  However the point of education is not to satisfy, but to challenge, confuse, irritate and unsettle, to agitate truths we have accepted in our lives.  The problem with Google is that a searcher can only enter vocabulary and terms they already understand.  If a student does not know who Etienne Balibar is, then he or she cannot add his name to a search for postcolonialism.  Therefore, Google will always make the searcher comfortable, finding what is already known, in a basic language. 

For teachers, such a realization presents profound consequences.  It is necessary to understand what brings students to learning, including their motivation and previous experiences of education.  It is difficult to pierce and research the space between a searcher and a search engine.  We cannot put words into a search engine that we do not know.  Therefore attention is required on the entirety of the educational context, experience and history that leads into that moment of entering words into a search engine.  Because information literacy, vocabulary and knowledge is lacking, Google restricts, reduces and limits the source material that is found and we are not even aware that it does so.  Therefore intervention is required.  Teachers and librarians must slice and probe the intimate and hyper-personal space between Google and the Googler.  One way to defamiliarize this encounter is through carefully configured assessment.

As an example, I ask my MA students to complete an annotated bibliography on a research method.  They can choose oral history, ethnography, practice-led research, photographic-led research, semiotics or unobtrusive research methods.  I ask that they find me twenty sources for their annotated bibliography, but with emphasis on particular categories.  They must find conventional scholarly monographs, but locating other types of sources is more difficult.  The pattern has been the same in the last few years.  They arrive in my office:  “Tara how do I find refereed articles?  There are no refereed articles for oral history.”  I ask them to repeat the method of their search on my office computer.  Yes, they typed “oral history” into Google and did not have the patience to sift the results.

I suggested typing two additional words into Google:  “Oral history refereed articles.”  The results improved.  I then proposed they move to Google Scholar.  The results again improved. I suggested they move to the Directory of Open Access Journals or Open J-Gate.  The results improved.  Source after source, the pattern continued.  They could not find any podcasts.  I added the word “podcasts” into their search terms.  Podcasts appeared in the list.  I also suggested that they may consider going to iTunes or Libsyn.  Again the results improved when moving to more specialist sites. 

Karin de Jager and Mary Nassimbeni, in their evaluation of information literacy programmes in South Africa, confirmed that they are best delivered when integrated into the subject curricula (De Jager, K. and M. Nassimbeni 2002, p.179).  They showed that the generic models for information literacy through stand-alone training are seen by librarians to be less satisfactory.   However their research also confirmed what I had discovered in my teaching: 

  • There seems to be a measurable discrepancy between students’ perceptions about their own information literacy skills, and abilities acquired after interventions, and their actual skills as measured by answers to practical questions (De Jager, K. and M. Nassimbeni 2002, p.180).

The crucial recognition logged by de Jager and Nassimbeni was that not only were students deficient in information literacy skills, but they were lacking consciousness about their inadequate information literacy skills.  Their study confirmed the cliché that we do not know what we do not know.  An integrated and expansive scholarly intervention is required to activate both consciousness and increased skill in information management.  In addition, they argue that it must be reinforced through concrete applications in a disciplinary area. 

Google has not caused this gap between confidence and ability.   What Google has facilitated is the ability to deploy simple vocabulary to return some results.  When receiving these links, the novice searcher does not hold the competence to recognize the gaps and absences, nor evaluate the quality of the materials.  They do not know what they do not know, lacking information literacy in an age of information obesity.  That is why the unproblematized and almost evangelical commitment to Google or any hardware or software must be questioned.  Commitment without consciousness encourages sloppy thinking.  It facilitates a culture of equivalence.  Food is just food.  Information is just food.  Actually that is not the case.  There is better food.  There is better information.  The pivotal lesson in transforming environments of information obesity is that a few key decisions from the user/researcher can make such a difference.  To justify such decisions is similar to trying to convince a friend about the convenience of eating an apple or yoghurt, rather than a home delivered pizza.  The pizza tastes better than fruit.  The information from Google satisfies the inexperienced searcher because they lack expertise in finding and interpreting anything more complex (6).  Therefore to question and probe not only information obesity but the assumptions used to mask its consequences, it is time to enter a phase of digital dieting.

Digital Dieting
It is easier to read blogs than an academic article.  It is simpler to watch a YouTube video of another drunken bride falling over at a wedding than viewing an important lecture recorded with a static camera.  It is more difficult and requires concentration and effort.  It is easier to suck in the equivalent of an information sugar rush, than the slow release of profound ideas, carefully constituted (7).    As Linda Behan confirmed in her discussion of the role of the school librarian, “students want instant gratification, and there are not enough hours in the day to teach them otherwise” (Behen 2006, p.5).   Yet one way to circumvent or challenge the desire for immediate and automated results is to put intellectual obstacles in the way, to defamiliarize their encounter with ideas (8).   By removing simple and introductory sources, sites and search engines from students, the crutch is gone.  By blocking default intellectual options, consciousness develops in differentiating between general and scholarly information.  My imperative to ‘ban’ Google is simply to challenge students to find better information in different ways.  When they know the key authors in the field and have widened their vocabulary, Google becomes much more useful. 

To enact this intervention, I supply a detailed study guide and a free collection of readings.  While this has been a common practice in many universities in the last twenty years, these supplied materials from academic staff are now even more important.  The retraction of library budgets for monographs and journals, along with commercial publishers buying and aggregating journals into expensive packages beyond the reach of many universities means that academic staff must purchase and supply the overwhelming majority of course materials used in their courses.  Extracts are then photocopied within copyright parameters and distributed to students.  The changes to publishing, with a retraction of scholarly monographs and an increase in textbooks, have further reduced the quality of available material for students.  Therefore, academics – to guarantee the quality of student readings from any socio-economic background – are assuming personal responsibility as public institutions and university libraries that used to fulfil this function have been bled of funding.  Either academics supply this high quality scholarship to their students, or it is not available for them to read.

When students use these specially prepared materials, rather than wandering through Google, Wikipedia or textbooks, they learn about the subject and gain security and expectations in a new environment.  It is digital dieting.  Less searching creates more learning.  The cost of choice in an age of information obesity – which is actually a denial of choice - is that we stay in intellectual environments where we feel happy, understood, satiated, literate and untroubled by ‘foreign’ ideas.  The starting point of learning is to have the courage to read defiantly and courageously, jumping into ideas that confuse, unsettle and upset our values and experience.  Challenge builds learning.  Conformity and comfort enable ignorance.  The advantage of Google constructing a pathway through information is that it prevents inexperienced students and citizens becoming frozen and overwhelmed when selecting relevant sources.  They do not have to choose.  The clean interface of Google automates their search patterns, giving them a rank of websites so that they are never troubled to think about the way in which such a list was assembled.  The key in enacting digital dieting is to gently move students from ‘selecting’ Google as a default option.  Even instigating a single change – from Google to Google Scholar – makes an incredible difference. 

My goal as a teacher, particularly as a teacher of first year students, is to slow them down.  I block data mining and cutting and pasting through careful construction of assessments.  To achieve this goal, it is necessary to create an awareness of the different types and modes of information and provide a scaffold to information literacy. I also assemble a checklist for them.  Every source they use in University requires asking ten key questions:

 1.    Who authored the information?
 2.    What expertise does the writer have to comment?
 3.    What evidence is used?  Are there citations in the piece?
 4.    What genre is the document:  journalism, academic paper, blog, polemic?
 5.    Is the site/document/report funded by an institution?
 6.    What argument is being made?
 7.    When was the text produced?
 8.    Why did this information emerge at this point in history?
 9.    Who is the audience for this information?
10.    What is not being discussed and what are the political consequences of that absence?

This is the list I give my first year students on the day they commence class.  Such questions ask that they stop and think before they cut and paste.   If I allow the students to use Google and Wikipedia without thinking, snacking on low quality information because it is available, cheap and easy to find, then they never make the realization of how little they know.  They never reach the moment of consciousness that they have little idea how to find information. 

The imperative is teaching students the differences between scholarly and general information and naturalizing information literacy processes for evaluating sources.  This encourages students to stretch and try new strategies, new search engines and new methods.  It involves all of us – as learners and readers – to extend ourselves to seek out new ideas and intellectual opportunities.  The implementation of digital dieting enables the skills required to handle the proliferation of information.  But this intervention in personal search practices of students is not enough.  Besides moderating information obesity and initiating digital dieting, it is necessary to activate social skills to not only shape information into knowledge, but to see the other side of the argument and position all truths into the context from which they emerge (9). 

Contact information

Professor Tara Brabazon is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton U.K., Visiting Professor of Edge Hill University U.K., Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) and Director of the Popular Culture Collective.  Previously, Tara has held academic positions in both Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.  She has won six teaching awards, including the Australian National Teaching Award for the Humanities, along with other awards for disability education and cultural studies. She is the author of eleven books, including Digital Hemlock, The University of Google: education in the (post) information age, The revolution will not be downloaded:  dissent in the digital age and Thinking Popular Culture: war, writing and terrorism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008). 

1. Wansink confirms that, “if the candy dish sits on your desk, you consistently have to make that heroic decision whether you will resist the chocolate that has been giving you the eye all day.  The easy solution is to lose the dish, move the dish, or replace the candy with something you personally don’t like,” ibid., p. 81.

2. In this discussion of bodily – rather than information – obesity, I do not wish to contribute to the pressures and oppressions confronted by those with a weight beyond the currently configured norm.  I am applying a model of food control to information management.  I want to log however the powerful critique of the weight management ‘industry’ by Paul Campos of The obesity myth, (New York, Gotham Books, 2004)
4.  Jaron Lanier argued that, “Wikipedia provides search engines with a way to be lazy,” You are not a gadget:  a manifesto, (London, Penguin, 2010), p. 143.)
6.  Another key element of this argument is that the focus is on content creation rather than content understanding.  Nicholas Carr stated that, “as user-generated content continues to be commercialized, it seems likely that the largest threat posed by social production won’t be to big corporations but to individual professionals – to the journalists, editors, photographers, researchers, analysts, librarians, and other information workers who can be replaced by, as Horowitz put it, ‘people not on the payroll,’” The Big Switch:  rewiring the world, from Edison to Google, (New York,  W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), p. 142.  
7.  It is important to log the consequences of the Amazon effect:  the more ‘we’ click, the more the type of information, goods and services we see is limited.  Similarly, by 2007, the personalized search became the default for those with a gmail address and Google account.  This personalization means that we keep finding people like ourselves and information that keeps us satisfied rather than challenged. 
8.   J. Lanier called this “contrarianism,” with the goal of constructing “an alternative mental environment,” You are not a gadget: a manifesto, (London, Penguin, 2010, p.23).
9. The role of librarians in this process is crucial.  As John Budd confirmed, “among the numerous concerns related to librarianship is the goal of informing people, of providing shape and form to their thoughts and questions,” Self-examination:  the present and future of librarianship, (Westport:  Beta Phi Mu Monographic Series, 2008), Kindle edition, locations 38-42.

L. Behen (2006) Using pop culture to teach information literacy: methods to engage a new generation, Westport, Libraries Unlimited.
Brin, S. and L. Page (1998) “The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine,” Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, Vol. 30, No. 1-7, April 1998, pp.107-117.
K. De Jager and M. Nassimbeni (2002) “Institutionalizing information literacy in tertiary education:  lessons learned from South African Programs,” Library Trends, Vol. 51, No. 2, Fall 2002.
Wardrop. M (2009) “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” November 19, 2009, Daily Telegraph,

Wansink, B Mindless 
Wansink, B (2009) Mindless Eating:  why we eat more than we think, London, Hay.

Whitworth A, (2009) Information Obesity, Oxford, Chandos Publishing.

Listing and main photograph: Andrew Michaels, sourced from Flickr using Creative Commons license creative commons logo (small)